Through Global Engagement, Iraqi Universities Rebuild
It was mid-September, 2003, and still stifling hot in Erbil, when I first stepped off the small plane onto the narrow strip of pavement serving as a runway at the time. I had been warned about the flight prior to leaving, but nothing could completely prepare me for the small, crowded plane or the spiral nosedive that was to mark my arrival in Kurdistan. I was met in a gravel area by U.S. military personnel who whisked me into a military vehicle, and off to meet my ride.
My entry into Erbil recently was equally astonishing, but this time due to the rapid change that has taken place in the region since 2003. What began as a runway on a gravel lot had grown to an international airport welcoming flights from all over the world. Taxis now meet passengers for travel to their destination in Erbil. Driving along the same road from the airport, the new buildings and ongoing construction made the road somewhat unrecognizable. The rate of growth and development was astonishing.
Throughout my eight years of working in and on Iraq, I have gained an appreciation of the challenges facing the leadership and the people of Iraq in the process of nation building after years of isolation and war, and an admiration for the efforts made to rebuild their society. My involvement in the region has ranged from working with primary and secondary schools to leadership development, from assisting university faculty and administration with curriculum development to assisting working with children.
Like the region itself, the higher education system in Iraq is in the process of undergoing enormous amounts of change, as leaders look for ways to develop a system held back due to war, embargos, and isolation. Pressing issues such as the widespread destruction of infrastructure, an unstable and dangerous environment for academics, and a lack of current and relevant materials overshadow the rich history and tradition of academic excellence once known in Iraq.
I am currently working on the University Linkages Program, which is bringing together US and Iraqi university faculty, administrators, and students for the purpose of rebuilding and strengthening the higher education system of Iraq. Meeting our colleagues from the Iraqi universities—all eager for information and possessing a keen understanding of the potential impact of their work—was inspiring. Iraqi faculty expressed their great anticipation of rejoining the academic community in leading global research. One faculty member said he hoped collaborating with Western academics would sharpen and hone his faculty’s teaching skills to engage students in thinking critically. This program will also bring together two cultures to share knowledge and experiences. Participants will be introduced to another culture much the same as my introduction to Iraq, an introduction that will hopefully mark the beginning of a long and fruitful experience.